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The magician's way
A farmer uses stage magic and his fertile imagination to promote organic farming in Bihar.
Farming and magic performances don't really go together in the common imagination. Not so, says, Shreekant Kushwaha, a farmer from Goviindpur village in Vaishali district, Bihar. "Both magic and farming are science and need the use of hands for their execution. Both become obsolete without new tricks, " says Kushwaha, a puckish smile on his face. In his late forties, Kushwaha uses his magic tricks to convince other villagers of the need to adopt organic farming techniques.
And Kushwaha is well versed in both arts - he is a trained organic farmer and a trained magician. And, he emphasises, he learnt stage magic for the promotion of organic farming and has done over 1000 shows in several districts of north Bihar over the last nine years. He performs, he says, to convince several thousand farmers to switch to organic farming "to increase both, their income and the fertility of the soil". He has over 600 tricks in his repertoire and claims he keeps crowds spellbound as he spreads his message.
The idea struck Kushwaha at a village agriculture fair in 2003, he recalls, when he first saw a magician pulling in crowds to his show. Kushwaha asked the magician to teach him some tricks but the performer refused.
"I did not lose hope and went to meet the famous magician in my area, Dr Ram Ratan Sharma, who trained me for two years. I farmed during the day and learnt magic at night", Kushwaha says. "People of my village, even my family members, would call me paagal (mad man) but I ignored them and carried on. "
Two years later, in 2005, Kushwaha made his debut on stage at an agriculture fair. He was ready with his tools which included two empty boxes, a fistful of seeds and a few small plants. First he performed several popular tricks - making a ball vanish, pulling a pigeon out of a hat and so on - to attract attention of the crowd. Then came the "real business".
"Showing two boxes to them I announced that one box had seeds raised with organic fertiliser, and the other, with synthetic fertiliser. I put a lid over both the boxes and announced, 'Let's see which seed grows faster, " says Kushwaha. When the lid came off, the seeds treated with organic fertiliser seemed to have grown into saplings faster. The assembled farmers appeared quite impressed and burst into applause.
Kushwaha finally got the opportunity he was looking at for years - the chance to explain to farmers the economics and science of organic farming. "They all returned home convinced and turned to organic farming, " he points out.
He has also conducted over two dozen training sessions for farmers in his village, sharing tips and tricks to farmers on how to make organic fertiliser and how to vermicompose the soil to increase production.
Kushwaha's efforts soon bore fruit and almost all farmers of his village took to organic farming. In 2006 the Bihar government declared his village, Govindpur, the first organic village of the state. "Mera jaadu chal gaya, " he says with a glint in his eyes.
And when an unlettered farmer who could barely write his name managed to convert an entire village to organis farming, the message travelled far. The local branch of the State Bank of India 'adopted' his village and started providing all loan facilities to these farmers, many of whom are marginal. Kushwaha has got awards and recognition. The state government, politicians and a handful of institutions have lauded his unique initiative and efforts.
Kushwaha's organic farming crusade also brought prosperity. He has built himself a double-story concrete house with a kitchen garden. His daughters, now married, went to college and are computer literate. His son, Dilip Kumar, is district agriculture advisor in Vaishali. He owns a colour television, a computer with a spanking new scanner-cum-printer and rides a distinctive black motorbike.
"I earn over Rs 5 lakh annually through farming and I'm more than happy today doing my job as a magician-farmer, " he says, one hand stroking his pet Pomeranian.
Kushwaha makes organic fertiliser using cow dung as well as organic pesticides using cow's urine. The raw material for his venture comes from his own cattle shed. "If a man like him had pulled off this magic anywhere else in the world he would have been an international personality by now, " says U K Sharma, chairperson, Vaishali Area Small Farmer's Association (VASFA), an NGO that provides training and organic seeds tolocal farmers here.
However, Sharma points out that with the dwindling number of cattle in the area the future of organic farming is not rosy. "Cattle rearing is very labour intensive and young farmers these days choose to migrate to metro cities rather than to rear cattle, " he rues.
Kushwaha too is alarmed at this trend. "With migration and shortage of cows and buffaloes the farmers do not get cow dung for vermicomposting and are slowly shifting back to using chemical fertilisers, " he says. But Kushwaha is not deterred by the challenges. By using local resources, he is now looking to learn new ways and methods to overcome these constraints.
"There is always a new trick in science and magic, " he says confidently. In fact villagers and family members often call him 'scientist'. "Agricultural scientist, they actually mean, " says Kushwaha, a wide smile lighting up his weather-beaten face.
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